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Braving Cold, Chants, Students Flock to Hear Gun Case

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; A08

They came at midnight, six Georgetown University students with the bare essentials for a night in front of the Supreme Court: Sleeping bags. Pretzels. Malted milk balls.

"I've been thinking about this case for weeks," confided Jennifer Dixon, 19, a government major from Royal Oak, Mich., referring to the landmark arguments on the legality of the D.C. gun ban.

But Dixon found 83 people in line for the few seats available for the full proceeding. So, like most spectators, she and her friends were allowed in yesterday for just three minutes of the arguments before being ushered out.

Still, it was worth it, the students said.

"This is a huge case," said Matt Shapiro, 18, of Richmond, who belongs to Georgetown's Supreme Court society with the other students. "We had to come see it."

The D.C. gun case, the Supreme Court's long-awaited examination of the reach of the Second Amendment, turned the steps and sidewalk in front of the ornate building into a theater of lively debate on citizens' rights to own firearms.

The D.C. government leadership turned out in force. So did chanting activists on both sides of the issue and hundreds of shivering tourists and sleep-starved students anxious to glimpse history.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) emerged from the morning arguments with a message once again proclaiming the importance of the 1976 gun law, one of the strictest in the country. "This is a public safety case," he declared.

Facing a throng of reporters on the steps, he said, "More guns anywhere in the District of Columbia is going to lead to more crime."

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) followed him to the microphones, saying that it was reasonable for the city to ban handguns, because they can be easily concealed and taken into schools, buses and other locations.

A few minutes later, a gray-haired man in a parka stepped to the microphones, wearing a blue tie decorated with the scales of justice. It was Dick Anthony Heller, 66, the security guard who challenged the law, the man behind District of Columbia v. Heller.

"A basic issue of our constitutional rights to life and self-defense has been violated," said Heller, a Capitol Hill resident, flanked by his attorneys. "As a security officer, I carry a gun to protect government offices. But my life isn't worth protecting at home, in their eyes."

Below, on the sidewalk, the arguments of both sides were echoed by dozens of protesters from groups such as the Second Amendment Sisters and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. They waved signs and engaged in dueling chants on the sidewalk.

"More guns!" yelled a man with a bullhorn.

"Less crime!" responded a group of gun-rights activists.

"More guns!" the man bullhorned. The counter-demonstrators jumped in.

"More death!" they screamed.

Some D.C. residents insisted that the court challenge was another attempt to limit their city's right to govern itself.

"Where do you live? D.C.?" demanded a woman in a "Free DC" cap, glaring at a man carrying a sign that read "Ban the Washington elitists, not our guns."

"No, my parents do," the man replied. "And I love them very much."

Those standing in line to see the court's arguments were also discussing the case, but in calmer tones. Some were activists, but many were students, waiting hours for their three-minute glimpse of the greatest law tutorial in the land.

They were an unusual lot: high school students who had postponed spring-break trips, college kids who got up at dawn, and even that rarest of D.C. creatures -- the teen-aged Scalia groupie.

"He writes fascinating dissents," said 17-year-old Lauren Franz, who rose at her Alexandria home at 4:30 a.m. in hopes of glimpsing 72-year-old Justice Antonin Scalia.

She got her wish -- if only for three minutes.

"This is a big deal," she asserted, leaving the court.

Layla Calderon and Mike Asplen, law students at Catholic University, appeared similarly awed by the historic import of the case. They had shivered in line outside the court for three hours before getting their three-minute visit.

"It was a hot bench," reported Asplen, 22, of Silver Spring, relaying how he saw Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ask questions. "It was worth every second."

"It was totally worth it," added Calderon, 23, who lives downtown. "Just to be in this place and know this case was so important. It's the Supreme Court. It's the Mecca for law students."

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

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